Russian tycoon's arrest sparks fears of 'second Yukos'

MOSCOW - The detention of billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov on money-laundering charges sent shock waves through Russia's business and political circles on Wednesday and prompted comparisons with past crackdowns on powerful oligarchs.

The Investigative Committee, which reports directly to President Vladimir Putin, announced late Tuesday that Yevtushenkov had been placed under house arrest and was being investigated for misappropriation or embezzlement linked to an oil deal.

The move is reminiscent of the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then head of oil company Yukos, who spent a decade in jail up to 2013 on what he says were politically motivated charges.

The probe into 65-year-old Yevtushenkov, who is Russia's 15th richest man with a fortune of $9 billion (S$11 billion) according to Forbes magazine, centres on how Yevtushenkov's company, AFK Sistema, acquired oil company Bashneft.

The respected business daily Vedomosti reported earlier this year that state oil giant Rosneft was keen to get its hands on Bashneft.

In interviews published on Wednesday, Khodorkovsky pointed the finger at Rosneft chief Igor Sechin and said the arrest showed Putin was losing his grip on domestic politics.

"I see in this a total loss of control by the president, who simply does not see what is going on under his own nose," Khodorkovsky told Vedomosti.

"If he did see, I doubt that he would so misjudge the situation and give such an order," said Khodorkovsky, who served two prison terms for tax evasion and fraud and was stripped of his oil company Yukos.

"I still hope that our president will at some point tear himself away from his new conquests and will see what is happening in the country," he added, apparently referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and the confrontation with the West over Ukraine.

He said he believed Yevtushenkov's case centred on "purely commercial interest" in the oil industry, not a political conflict.

Rosneft has denied any role in the investigation.

Khodorkovsky was suddenly released from prison late last year and now lives with his family in Switzerland in self-imposed exile.

He has accused Sechin, one of Putin's most loyal lieutenants, of orchestrating his downfall. After being pushed into bankruptcy, Yukos was carved up and sold off in opaque auctions to state companies, with Rosneft buying up the best assets.

The arrest of Yevtushenkov, who sits on the board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, sparked fears in the country's business and political circles.

"We have a really bad feeling about this... this all makes us think of a second Yukos case," an aide to a senior Russian official was quoted as saying.

Yevtushenkov has been placed under arrest until November 16 in his country residence in the elite village of Zhukovka outside Moscow, Kommersant said.

He is only allowed to contact lawyers, investigators and prison officers and is wearing an electronic bracelet, the newspaper added.

AFK Sistema is a vast holding which also has major interests in the country's biggest mobile telephone company MTS, travel firm Intourist and a range of other assets.

The Investigative Committee said it had launched the probe because it had "sufficient grounds to believe that AFK Sistema board chairman Vladimir Yevtushenkov is involved in the legalisation (money-laundering) of property acquired by criminal means".

AFK Sistema responded that the accusation against Yevtushenkov was "without foundation."